Two Milestones in One Day

Yesterday was a busy day for the Pict household as two milestones were achieved: I registered the smallest Pict at Elementary School and I sat my first American driving test.
This is how you register your child for school in Scotland: you go along to the relevant primary school with your child’s birth certificate, you fill out a brief form and that’s it.  Five minutes.  Your child is enrolled to start school in August.
This is how you register your child for school in America.
Firstly, you download a whole plethora of forms from the School District’s website.  The printers spews out paper for quite some time.  You then have to take your child to a Doctor for them to perform a medical and fill out a form.  In our case, this involved us also having to register the youngest child with a medical practice and talk the doctor through our medical notes from Scotland.  That took a couple of hours of my life.  Then you have to take another form to a dentist to perform a dental check on the child in question.  Again, this necessitated us registering him with a dental practice.  Mr Pict was going for a filling anyway so we just had the little one piggy-back on his appointment.  Then yesterday morning I had to take those forms, plus our rental lease (to prove our eligibility for the catchment area), plus birth certificate and a second form of ID to an appointment at the school.  The appointment was with the school secretary and the nurse.  There was a lot of photocopying and further form filling involved.  It took about half an hour.  He now gets to start school in September, which at least makes all that time, effort and paper worthwhile.
This is a family milestone as it means that come September all four of our children will be in school.
April Fool’s Day might not have been the most auspicious choice of date for my driving test, the second of yesterday’s milestones.  Mr Pict had passed his US Driver’s test first time but he has had years of experience driving in America whereas I have had five months.  I was not feeling very confident.  I knew I could handle the rest of the test but the parallel parking had me pretty resigned to failing.  In Pennsylvania, parallel parking is a compulsory element of the practical test.  Failing it is an automatic fail for the entire test.  Indeed, they start with it precisely so that they can forego the rest of the test if it is failed.  One teenage girl in front of me experienced just that.  I was a decent enough parallel parker in Britain but here I have found my spatial awareness to still be somewhat lacking when it comes to parking.  I am used to judging the width of the car and distance from the kerb based on sitting on the other side of the car.  It has not yet adjusted to me sitting on the left hand side.  Given that I had one chance to get the parallel park perfect and just three maneouvres within that one chance to get myself perfectly within the space, I was not feeling very assured of my chances of passing first time.  I’m a glass half-empty person.
I arrived in time for my test and joined the queue of cars waiting to set off on the test circuit.  I had not been remotely nervous before that point but I am neurotic about punctuality and when my allotted time came and went and I was still parked up in the queue I did start to get a bit twitchy.  I was also the only adult taking my test.  The thought that the half dozen 16 year olds in the car queue might pass and that I – with over two decades’ driving experience – might fail made me feel twitchy too.  Failing this driving test could be potentially humiliating as well as being a personal setback.  Thankfully I had a chatty examiner who asked random questions about me being from Scotland and that put me at ease again.  The parallel parking went fine.  I came close to clipping the barrels in front as I was so anxious to be inside the white lines of the space – as even having a tire on the line would be a fail – but I missed them and got lined up in the space in two moves rather than the permitted three.  The examiner asked me to drive on and that meant I felt positive I was going to pass since the only ropey bit was over.  The “course” involved doing a circuit of the adjacent mall car park.  There were lots of stop signs but that was it.  I would be amazed if the driving part even took as much as five minutes.  Compared to my British driving test all those years ago, it was extremely simple to pass.
So that’s it.  Despite my pessimism, I passed my US driving test.  I now have a Pennsylvania driver’s licence.  I now have a form of ID American people can comprehend.  I can now file my International Driving Licence, which would have expired in September.  We can now shave money off our car insurance.  I can now tick another major thing off my To Do list.

Driving and being driven up the wall

I got my UK driving licence at the age of 17 – the minimum legal driving age there – and I somehow managed to pass not only first time but with an entirely clean test sheet.

I had had no more than ten formal lessons, a few trips around industrial estates with my Dad to practice maneouvres and my Grandad had made me do stunt driving a la Starsky and Hutch, like reversing around a series of cones, even though that was never going to form any part of any test.  But still my instructor thought I was going to fail.  Luckily this was in the age before separate theory tests.  I still have no capacity for memorising statistics and numbers.  There was never a chance I would be able to accurately recall all those stopping distances.  Had there been a written test back then, I am sure I would have failed it at least once.  But back then knowledge was assessed as part of the practical test so I didn’t let it vex me so much.

My instructor decided it would be best if I did not sit the test at the nearest centre because I was constantly driving to where I thought I should go rather than where I was being told to go.  I was just too familiar with the roads there.  So instead it was decided that I would sit my test and the next closest testing centre which was a much smaller town.  I soon sussed out that there were really only two routes I could ever be taken on my test since only those two routes would permit all of the components of the test to take place.  I, therefore, set out to memorise every details of those routes even down to how many turns of the wheel were required to reverse perfectly around each corner.  Still my instructor was sure I was going to fail and that the test was just going to be a learning exercise.  That may have been because his attempts at getting me to do an emergency stop always resulted in me gradually rolling to a stop that could have mowed down several grannies.  I just couldn’t seem to get myself to reflexively respond to a faked emergency.  A tap of a newspaper on the dashboard was not a nonagenarian stepping off the kerb after all.

It transpired, however, that my driving examiner was a talker.  As soon as he got in the car, he asked me about my fairly rare surname.  He was able to geographically pinpoint my paternal family origins – Aberdeenshire – because of it and told me that he was also from Aberdeen.  And so followed a test that was really just a monologue from him about Aberdeen and travelling in Scotland and places he had lived with the occasional interruption for him to say, “Turn left ahead” or “do a three-point turn here”.  I am pretty confident that most of the time he was not paying full, focused attention to my driving.  He asked me to park up and I knew that was the driving element over and that I was now going to be asked some questions to assess my knowledge.  As soon as he held up a picture of a triangle with a cow silhouette in it and asked me what this sign meant, I knew I had passed.  All the questions I was asked were very basic, the most challenging one being what colour the cat’s eyes are on a slip road.  He informed me that I had passed.  Phew!  But it was when he showed the paperwork to my instructor that he and I were both dumbstruck because there was not a single fault recorded.  It was a flawless test.  Except that I know it wasn’t a flawless test: I just had an examiner who was so busy gabbing that he had not noticed my minor errors (though none of those would have led to a fail).

So that was how I passed my first driving test and became a qualified driver: no specific theory test and a hyper-loquacious examiner.

Now I am in the process of undergoing my attempt to become a fully qualified driver in the US.

Since I finally – finally! – have all of the documentation I need, today I went to the driving centre to obtain my learner’s permit.  I thought all I was doing was obtaining the equivalent of a UK provisional license – a permission slip to start learning to drive, the first hurdle in becoming a fully-fledged, licensed driver.  

Then came the bombshell that to even obtain the learner’s permit I had to take the Knowledge test.


I have not read the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual.  I have flicked through it and I looked up some specific things to ensure I was not breaking the law in the meantime (since I am legally driving using my UK licence and international licence).  I have not, however, studied it in any way.  The pass rate is 80% with 18 questions.  I had that sinking feeling.

I was directed to a little booth containing a touch screen.  I poked a button and my test began.  Multiple choice questions appeared on the screen, I made a selection, confirmed that selection and then the screen would indicate correct (green for go!) or incorrect (red for “You are never going to drive in this country ever, you dimwit!”).

And I was getting green after green.  How was this possible?  Partly it was luck I’m sure.  A rash of questions involving statistics would have scuppered me for sure.  I was finding I could answer them without much brain-ache by dint of over two decades’ driving experience and simple common sense.  I did get two questions wrong: one because I guessed the wrong level of fine for a drink-driving offence (I wrongly erred on the side of harshness) and one because the question and potential answers were so riddled with American terms I could not stitch them together into something coherent to allow me to comprehend what was being asked of me.  So I guessed and got it wrong.  That was the penultimate question.  I got the last one right and a screen appeared congratulating me for passing.

Really?  I passed? Phew!

It didn’t all go as smoothly though.  Being me and my luck there had to be a glitch.  That ruddy lost hyphen struck again!  My SSN was one of the critical components of my permit application and, of course, in their wisdom the Department of Social Security had failed to insert a hyphen in my surname. It transpires there is also not a hyphen in my surname as it appears on my green card.  I am scheduling in some primal screaming just to vent my frustration over this lapse in punctuation.  Neither of these documents, therefore, exactly and precisely correspond to my passport, which records my surname accurately.  There was some humming and hawing, some referring to superiors, and finally they decided that the SSN was the over-riding supporting document and that, therefore, my driving permit was going to have to be issued sans hyphen.

The Curse of the Lost Hyphen strikes again.

Slowly but surely US bureaucracy is eroding my identity.

But my quest to have a US driving licence is progressing.

Giveth and taketh.

Lost Hyphen

Now that my green card has arrived, there are certain things I can progress.  Among the most urgent is obtaining a US driver’s licence.  The combination of my UK licence and an international licence permits me to drive in the US for up to a year from my arrival as a legal permanent resident.  Theoretically, therefore, I have ample time to obtain my licence.  However, even getting to the point of a test takes several steps and I also need to allow some time for possible fails and retakes.  I passed my UK driving test first time after just ten lessons but that was in the days before driving theory tests.  I’m not so confident this time around, especially since my brain is addled with knowledge of another country’s rules and regulations.

The first stage in this particular process is obtaining a learner’s permit and in order to get my mitts on one of those there are several things I need to do.  One of those was undergoing a medical, which I did a couple of weeks ago; the other thing I have to do is present a whole series of documents that prove my identity and status.  The green card was one such piece of documentation but I also need proofs of address.  Since my husband moved out to the US in advance of the rest of us, obviously everything is in his name.  I am only named on the lease.  So this morning we decided to get my name added to the electricity bill, since a utility bill is a recognised proof of address for the purpose of obtaining a learner’s permit.

My husband spoke on the phone first and explained that he wanted my name added to the account and that he was authorising such a change.  The phone then had to be handed to me, which is reasonable enough.  I provided my information.  It was all going swimmingly and smoothly.  Then I had to give my social security number.  I have only had an SSN for a few weeks and do not have a memory for numbers so I had not committed it to memory but I found it within a matter of minutes so we could proceed.  I was then asked to clarify how my name was recorded on the SSN.  We have a double-barreled surname.  We use a hyphen; my surname on the SSN card was hyphenless.  Instead of a hyphen there was a space.  This was not good enough verification apparently.  Our surname is unusual.  In fact it is so rare that only the six members of the Pict family have this surname.  But the fact that the hyphen was missing from my SSN registration meant the electricity company wanted additional evidence of my identity.  Labyrinthine bureaucracy again.

I was asked for the details of my driver’s licence.  I tried not to utter an irked guffaw down the phone as I patiently explained that I had only been in the US for two and a half months and had not yet obtained a US driver’s license.  So now, in order to be added to the bill, I have to present two forms of photo identification at their offices in Philadelphia.  Thankfully they will accept my UK driver’s licence as one of these, the other being my passport.  Jumping through stupid hoops again.  What was the point in my husband authorising my name being added to the bill if his authority meant nothing in the absence of a hyphen?  And why did the Social Security Department take it upon themselves to drop the hyphen from our surname?  My husband’s SSN has the surname with the hyphen so it’s not that the printing machine cannot produce them.  Someone has apparently taken it upon themselves to abduct the hyphen for no particular reason.  Just a whim.  And it doesn’t bother me at all on a personal level except that now I am going to have this mismatch between how my surname appears on everything else and how it appears on the ruddy SSN and the Green Card.  Of course there is also the serpent eating its own tail hassle of always being asked for the driver’s licence as my photo ID every single time I try to progress a step further in my quest to obtain said US driving licence.

Company checklists don’t allow for exceptions, divergence from the norm or apparently lost hyphens.  That’s today’s vent.

Cat’s Eyes

Driving in the dark the other night, I suddenly realised I was having to concentrate really hard in order to make out the road markings and it dawned on me: no cat’s eyes!  Now maybe this is just a PA thing rather than an America wide thing but I was a wee bit taken aback by the lack of cat’s eyes in the road surface just because I am so used to having them there to provide guidance as to the road markings when there is no other light source but the car’s own headlight beams.  Just in case you don’t know, reader, cat’s eyes are pods of reflective glass set into the road surface so that they shine when hit by the car’s headlights and they are not only laid out in line with the road markings but the colour of the cat’s eyes indicates the type of marking – lane, slip road, hard shoulder.  I had not realised I was habituated to using them to navigate roads at night until I no longer had them.  

In other driving news, I still have not even contemplated driving on the wrong side of the road.  However, I have discovered that my reverse parking sucks because my spatial awareness for reverse parking has always been from the other side of the car.  It is just as well American parking spaces are wide because I end up squint each and every time.  It doesn’t bode well for my ability to parallel park given that I was pretty sucky at that even in the UK.  And that in turn does not bode well for my ability to pass a driving test here.  I may have to cruise around industrial estates in the evening in order to practice just as I did when I was 17.  It’s weird being catapulted backwards in experience levels in such ways.

The Phantom Gear Stick

I’ve been driving on the US for a month now and finally, just today, I managed to undertake an entire car journey without my hand reaching out for a non-existent gear stick. My left leg fell into listless line about a week ago but my hand would not so kept reaching for the phantom gear stick – or stick shift as they say here. Now my left hand gets to be mostly indolent too.


I need to learn what the law is in the US regarding correct use of a car’s horn.  This is more from idle curiosity than the fact that at some point soon I am going to have to sit my driving test.  

In the UK, the correct use for a car’s horn is to sound a warning to another vehicle.  While I am not sure how the law stands here, people appear to use their car horns whenever they feel the need.  Frustration and anger are definite motivators for people to thump their horns around here but also just for the merry heck of it from what I can determine.  I am actually becoming inured to the sound of car horns because of it and that can’t be a good thing: how can it work as a warning signal if people are ignoring it because it is so routine to hear the ugly peal of a car horn every few minutes?

I have personally been honked at twice in the month that I have been living in the US.  The first time was because I got confused about which lane was for traffic going straight ahead and switched at last minute.  I didn’t cut anyone up or even cause anyone to have to slow down yet the car behind me still felt the need to blare it’s horn.  I guess that was to be considered educational horn use.  I think it was an over-reaction but at least that one was a fair cop.  The second time was last night.  I was stationary at a stop sign for perhaps a maximum of two seconds too long and that was reason enough for the car behind me to blast its horn.  Totally uncalled for.  How much of a rush can you be in that waiting an extra two seconds to hit the stop sign yourself makes your blood boil?

I don’t get it at all.  Do drivers here like having constant high blood pressure from the stress of waiting for the next person to be honk-worthy?  Do they actually find it therapeutic to slam their fist down on the horn every time someone irritates them?

I need to check out the law on car horn use and, while I’m at it, I might check out where the law stands on horns that play soothing music instead of honks because I think folks around here could do with some of that being blasted at them.


Friends and family will know that the one thing about relocating to America that intimidated me more than any other thing was driving.  Although I have visited America several times over the past two decades, I have never driven there.  For various reasons, my husband has always been the driver.  Nor have I ever driven on my travels in continental Europe so I have zero experience of driving on the other side of the road.  The thought of having to do so  – with four kids in the back to boot – was one that freaked me out.

I opted to face and flood my fears.  I was going to have to drive in order to complete basic, daily tasks so I had to just throw myself at it headlong.  I arrived in the US last Thursday evening and on Friday morning I was in the driver’s seat and reversing out of our driveway.  I drove along busy roads, parked in thronging car parks, and navigated completely unfamiliar territory and not only did I not splat another living being but I didn’t even clip a wing mirror.  No one died.  No one was even injured.  Success.

My road positioning was horrible initially.  I was conscious of driving a slightly wider car than the one I had had in Scotland and was also, of course, sitting on the side of the car away from the kerb so my whole sight line was different.  However, I established that the correct positioning accorded with the outer edge of the windscreen wiper blade being in line with the road lines on my side of the car.  No more risk of scuffing tires on kerbs from that point.  Of course, there is still the challenge of navigating in residential streets with no lines painted on the tarmac but so far so good.  Let me reiterate: no one has died or suffered injury at the expense of my driving.

The turning on red thing is weirding me out, however.  In Scotland, I am used to signs informing me what not to do: no left turn, one way street, no entry.  Added to that is the fact that red very definitely means red.  Stop.  Not red that is kind of amber and means go unless you have to stop.  Suddenly being faced with a system where they tell you to do something unless they expressly tell you not to do it is just too counter-intuitive to my brain.  I’ve been driving in Britain for over 20 year.  Undoing all of that habitual behaviour is going to be a challenge.  I’m institutionalised.  So for now I have to deal with being hesitant and being honked at by other drivers as I try to determine whether red really does mean stop or go unless you have to stop.  I am also having to learn to lift my eyes that bit higher to read the traffic lights in the first place as their positioning is so much higher than those in the UK and so my sight line is another habit I need to break.  But still not a living thing or their property has been damaged by my driving.  Let’s chalk that up as a success.

Now added to the fact I have never driven in America is the fact I have  barely ever driven an automatic before. I drove one once for a few weeks 20 years ago.  I have always owned manual cars.  Suddenly I find I own a car with an automatic transmission so that is another learning curve for me.  Admittedly driving an automatic is much easier than driving a stickshift but once more it is about the habituated behaviour.  My left leg feels too idle and whenever I go from reverse to drive I look for the gear stick with my left hand, flapping and pawing about, which is peculiar since that isn’t even my gear changing hand.  It feels as if the limbs on my left side are atrophying when I am driving.  It really is peculiar.  Yet I am grateful to not be having to learn how to drive a stickshift back to front while also learning everything else.  Like when to turn on red.

At some point I will have to take my test and get my PA driver’s license.  I don’t think “No one died or got injured” is adequate, however, so that will be a challenge for the not so distant future.